South Korea’s biggest box-office hit of the year is the disaster movie “Haeundae,” which has been seen by 11.3 million Koreans. The title refers to the beach-resort area of Pusan, where from Oct. 8-16 the 14th annual Pusan International Film Festival took place. In fact, most of the festival is held in Haeundae, and on the second night I watched a computer-generated reproduction of the hotel where I was staying toppled by a 50-meter-high “megatsunami.”
“Haeundae” is the Korean film industry’s latest challenge to Hollywood hegemony, at least in Asia. It is also one of the most pirated movies in the region, and each of the 354 movies screened at the festival, considered Asia’s most significant film event, was preceded by a public-service announcement in which laughing movie stars encourage viewers to be “good downloaders.”
They can afford to be gentle. Asian films, and Korean films in particular, are doing well right now. Production financing remains robust and ticket sales are rising. Following the removal of the government’s quota for domestic movies several years ago, Korean films slumped, but are now back with a vengeance. July-September box office receipts topped $281 million, making it the biggest third quarter in the history of Korean cinema.
This success is qualified. Western markets are buying fewer Asian films. Despite comments made by comedian-director Hitoshi Matsumoto that he made his surrealist comedy “Symbol” for “an international audience,” the mood at PIFF was that there’s nothing wrong with designing movies for the home crowd. As a spectacle, “Haeundae” may not compete in the West with Roland Emmerich’s upcoming blockbuster “2012,” but the better Korean films at the festival weren’t out to compete with anyone, which is why they’re beating Hollywood on their own turf.
“Thirst,” the latest from director Park Chan Wook (“Old Boy”), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, was shown at PIFF in a new expanded version. Park’s baroque style and fondness for gore was well served by the tale of a Catholic priest (Song Kang Ho) who volunteers for a vaccine test and ends up as a vampire. The movie’s mixture of big themes, acrobatic sex, fountains of blood and black comedy is a structural mess, but it’s unlike any horror movie you’ll see anywhere.
Two other world-class Korean directors had films at the festival. Hong Sang Soo’s newest cynical sex comedy, “Like You Know It All,” may be his most self-reflexive. Its hero is a director who is asked to participate in a jury at a film festival and spends his time drinking and getting into trouble. This art-imitates -reality idea was turned around during the postscreening Q&A when Hong apologized for being incoherent, saying he’d been drinking the night before. Bong Joon Ho, whose 2004 monster movie, “The Host,” was one of the few Korean films ever to be a hit overseas, returned with a nifty murder mystery called “Mother” that perverted the standard maternal image presented in Asian movies.
China has such a huge potential audience that it doesn’t worry about the West, and some of the Chinese-language movies at PIFF were lavish historical epics. Director Yonfan’s “Prince of Tears,” the first film he’s made in his native Taiwan, deals with that island’s “white terror” in the mid-1950s, when the Nationalist government executed thousands for suspected Communist ties. Yonfan focuses on four individuals caught in the upheaval and films it as a lush romance that would have impressed David Lean.
The most discussed Chinese film at the festival was “City of Life and Death,” which tells the human story behind the 1937 Rape of Nanking. The movie is already a hit in China, though some Chinese are offended by what they see as an over-sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese invaders. Director Lu Chuan even received death threats. An impartial viewer may be confused by this reaction. Japanese soldiers impassively kill Chinese prisoners en masse and gleefully rape civilian women, but Lu’s main purpose is to show how wartime fervor easily tips over into group madness.
Lu’s accomplishment is especially impressive compared to a non-Asian movie at PIFF that covered the same story: Germany’s “John Rabe” focuses on the Nazi businessman who tried to protect civilians in Nanking. It’s more of a hero story than an overview of a historical event, and it appears that “City” is being picked up for distribution in Japan while “Rabe” is not, at least for now. Another film about a military atrocity, “A Little Pond,” addresses the massacre of dozens of peasants by the U.S. Army at No Gun Ri during the Korean War, an incident the Americans still dispute.
More recent wars were the subject of several Central Asia films. “Opium War,” directed by Afghanistan’s Siddiq Barmak, whose “Osama” won the 2004 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, chronicles the unlikely meeting between two U.S. helicopter soldiers and a family of opium cultivators living in abandoned military vehicles. The displaced civilians in Iraq’s “Kick Off,” which won the New Currents Award and the FIPRESCI International Film Critics Award at PIFF, are mostly Kurds living in an abandoned stadium while suicide bombers terrorize the nearby city of Kirkuk. Neither, however, was as viscerally powerful as Israel’s “Lebanon,” which looks at the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country from inside a tank.
But the film that best represented the Asian ascendance was “New York,” a big-budget Indian movie produced by PIFF’s 2009 Asian Filmmaker of the Year, Yash Chopra. Though not strictly a Bollywood movie, it contains enough musical montages to satisfy Bollywood’s prerogatives. It’s a post-9/11 terrorist melodrama that partly sympathizes with the terrorists, a sentiment that would be unacceptable in Hollywood action films, whose production values “New York” mimics with considerable skill. It’s the other side of a now familiar story.
“Mother” opens in Japan Oct. 31. “Thirst” will be the closing film of Tokyo Filmex (Nov. 21-29). Check www.filmex.net/index-e2009